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“Scully effect” entices women and girls into STEM careers

ITU recently caught up with Geena Davis, the Academy Award-winning Hollywood actor, co-executive producer of current television and social media series Mission Unstoppable, ITU Special Envoy for Women and Girls in ICT, and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (@gdigm).

ITU: Reports from your institute look at film and television representations of women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Has the situation of women STEM characters started changing, and why does the portrayal of women as scientists and engineers matter?

Geena Davis: Only a quarter of scientists and engineers in the United States are female in real life, and we know that media plays a contributing role. For example, STEM characters [are] rarely featured in leading roles – and [those are more likely] men than women.

When girls in their formative years don’t see female characters on screen as biochemists, software developers, engineers, or statisticians, they are less likely to imagine – or pursue – those career paths.

However, when girls do see women in STEM in media, it has a significant impact. Increasing media depictions of women in STEM is easy to do, and it provides a big bang for the buck.

What’s the most rewarding thing for you about having created this institute?

We’ve been doing it about 15 years now, and we can measure progress. There’s a lot of progress that needs to still be made for characters of colour or with different abilities. And age is another factor. But I’m very excited that we are seeing progress.

Do you see a conscious effort in film and media to change the numbers and images of women characters as scientists and engineers?

Well, yes. Based on our research, there is a solid movement to improve overall representation.

We have [since 2019] achieved gender parity for female lead characters in the top-grossing family films and top kids’ TV shows.

We’ve seen more TV shows being developed with STEM characters, but obviously we need many more.

In what ways can media portrayals of women as science professionals influence and inspire, as well as help to inform, girls for future professional roles?

We don’t have enough real-life female STEM role models to saturate the minds of young girls. We really need them in fiction; these characters have proved to be incredibly influential.

In a study on the character [Dana] Scully in [1990s TV series] The X Files, 58 per cent of [US] women currently employed in STEM fields cite her as the reason they went into those fields.

Tell us about Mission Unstoppable.

Mission Unstoppable is more than a television series. It’s a social media movement – meeting these young girls in the places they’re most likely drawn to, such as Twitter and Instagram and TikTok and Twitch.

The content ranges from meet-and-greets with women role models in STEM, to how scientists use hormones to be able to tell if someone is in love, and even experiments in making temporary hair dye or lava lamps at home. Girls are responding incredibly to it.

What do think would have a greater impact– increasing the numbers of women STEM characters, or improving how women STEM characters are portrayed?

What happens on screen can play out in the real world. So, using fictional media to inspire girls’ curiosity about STEM is one way. And of course, building a pipeline, engaging more girls and women to pursue STEM education and careers, is equally important.

What concrete actions can content creators put in place to support and promote strong female characters and role models?

Clearly, infusing their content with STEM characters and thinking more creatively about STEM.

STEM characters [usually appear] when it’s a medical show or a crime show. But there are opportunities for STEM characters in pretty much any situation, comedy, drama…

If you were to go back and talk to yourself as a girl, what advice would you give yourself with regards to the future of technology and how to engage with it?

I don’t think any of us had any idea. I certainly didn’t, at least about where technology was going to take us. It’s quite incredible and impressive. And it’s changed our lives so, so utterly.

I guess I would just have to say:

“Be prepared for something very, very important to come along that will change the way you look at everything.”

But, you know, back then there was such little interest in educating girls in STEM or inspiring them to pursue those careers.

Finally, would you be looking at taking on any roles that that might encourage girls to take on STEM careers, in your role as an actor?

Well, I haven’t got any currently lined up but it’s a big goal of mine.

I have an idea for a character for me in the Transformers movies as a scientist, and I think I’m going to pitch that idea. (laughs)

Watch or listen to the full interview.


Header image: Guest star Annet Mahendru (left) and Gillian Anderson as FBI agent Dr. Dana Scully on THE X-FILES, one of the longest-running sci-fi series in network television history. Photo by FOX Image Collection via Getty Images.

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